Let’s talk

We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less. – Diogenes

For my second post, I was going to talk about culture and ownership. However, as I was crafting that I realized I needed to back up and talk a bit more about some of the fundamentals. Unfortunately, you all are at the mercy of my tangents! 😉

Instead, I’m going to talk about good communication being an absolute must with regards to a healthy work environment. In my opinion, being a good manager or leader typically requires you to listen as much, if not more, than you talk. In addition to that, one of my goals for this blog is for it to be useful not just for small business owners and managers (or potential managers), but for people being managed. To help everyone figure out what’s working and what isn’t in their current job situation and to help them communicate that. So this post and hopefully most of my posts will be written with that in mind.

However, how do you achieve good communication? As an engineer, scientist, geek, nerd, special snowflake :), communication isn’t always my strong suit. In my experience though, it really isn’t most people’s strong suit regardless of their personalities. It’s just really hard to talk about important things, especially when the situation is tense or there is a power dynamic in play with a co-worker who has more clout, or your boss, or the president of the company. In most of these situations you are at a disadvantage. It’s just better to keep your mouth shut. Or is it?

Which leads to my first book recommendation. (don’t tell anyone but all of my best ideas come from the books I’ve read). I highly recommend Crucial ConversationsThis book was a game changer for me. It really opened my eyes around how to have productive conversations, even under stress. For those of us who spend a lot of time in our heads, this is fantastic.

First off, it does a really great job of explaining why communication is so important. Especially, as the authors define them, crucial conversations. Crucial conversations are conversations where there are opposing opinions and there are high stakes and/or strong emotions. For me, the examples they gave frequently mirrored my experience and my reluctance to even have the conversation in those situations. But they make a very compelling case, using both narrative as well as hard data, to make the point that not having the conversation will be worse. Speaking from personal experience, I have learned that having those hard conversations is definitely better. Otherwise I end up beating myself up for not speaking up, and then have to clean up the mess afterwards when it could possibly have been avoided. So have the conversation, and prepare yourself by having the right tools.

And in fact, the right tools were the second big thing I got out of this book. It helped me develop the tools and framework needed to have these types of conversations. Now it sounds weird to have tools and a framework to simply have a conversation (though engineers do love their tools and their frameworks), but here’s the thing; this isn’t a conversation down at the bar with your friends. These are hard conversations. Anything from having a disagreement with a co-worker around a minor detail, all the way to trying to prevent your boss from making a really bad decision. If you have the right tools, though, you can navigate these sorts of things more adroitly and get better outcomes.

So what are some of these tools. A big one is stay focused on the goal of the conversation. More often than not, when a conversation veers into crucial territory we lose focus and let our “fight or flight” brain kick in, and then our mission becomes either to punish the other person and win the conversation, or back off and try to repair the damage. I’ve been there and it isn’t a great place to be. Instead they suggest that you take a step back and ask yourself, “What is my goal here”. It can be hard to do, but with practice you can learn to do it and it does help immensely.

Another great tool is to “Refuse the Fool’s Choice”. They define the Fool’s Choice as telling yourself that you have to choose between silence or honesty, winning or losing, etc. Instead they suggest staying focused on your goal, consider what you don’t want to happen, and look for creative solutions. In my experience just presenting my brain with the option allows me to start thinking of alternatives. Try it, you might surprise yourself. These are just two of the great tools that the book suggests, there are many more that I’ve found useful as well.

My final big take away was the importance of understanding the other person’s point of view and working with a mindset of compromise. Developing this understanding is key to having a healthy working environment. For a manager, this is doubly important. You need to do your best to understand people’s motivations and accommodate their working and communication styles. What motivates one person to do a good job won’t necessarily be the same thing for another person. One person might be motivated by the chance to try a new technology, another by public recognition of their contributions. I’ve managed engineers who just wanted to be given tasks and then go work on them with no discussion. Others have wanted to discuss everything about the task before starting on it. All of this is A-OK, it’s just a matter of figuring out what each person needs to do his or her best work. And the way to do that is to talk to them.

There you have it. The “secret” to having a successful work relationship, well any relationship really, is to have good communication skills and ensure that communication is a two-way street. Make sure you’re listening as well as talking. Work on your communication skills regardless of if you’re a manager or not. They will serve you incredibly well in your career and life. I guarantee it. 😀

Until next time. Agree or disagree with anything I’ve said? Questions? Other book suggestions? Let me know in the comments below or via TwitterFacebook or email contact at captainbyrank dot com.


p.s. There is a corollary book to Crucial Conversations called Crucial Accountability. This book has been an even bigger game changer for me, however I’m not quite ready to talk about the situations where it’s most useful. So it will have to wait until a later date.

2 thoughts on “Let’s talk

  1. “Behind Closed Doors” is another excellent book about how to have productive conversations at work. What I found was that before I was exposed to meetings with more senior leaders, and could observe how they communicated, I was really missing out on a lot of techniques and skills for driving the right behavior and results, as well as listening and pulling out the important information from people who may be unwilling to get to what is really bothering them.


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